That’s not all, far from it. The story would have to include a high-res image from the insurance company’s campaign. That is, its ad, dressed up as editorial. It would also have to include a picture of Nadal at a press conference taken against the backdrop of the company’s “branded media wall”.
Actually, these were not couched as demands, but questions. Would this paper run the embedded image, and/or the branded photo, and the novella-length tagline? Would we ask a question about the sponsor and the campaign?
Because, you know, it “will help the team decide on which opportunities they’d like to pursue”. This came from a young woman at an Australian PR company that is coordinating with Nadal’s agent and the insurance company. Together, they are the “team”. No threat was ever less subtly made.
Even the most seemingly innocent element of this proposal, a list of questions in advance, is not as it seems. The PR operative said it was for her reference only, and would not be forwarded to Nadal. But you can be sure it would be used to coach Nadal in how to insinuate the sponsor’s name into his answers.
After a little back-and-forth between The Age and the PR company, we declined the interview.
Does Nadal know about these machinations in his name? He should. Ingenue that he sometimes seems, he’s too big a figure in tennis to represent himself as merely a pawn in a game. Does he care? He really should. The guy has earned around $170 million in his career, and you can quadruple that for endorsements, so this sort of chicanery only makes him look greedy. If (insert name of latest sponsor) really matters so much to him, he can buy an ad. He can buy the bloody paper.
Does it matter? Yes, it does. It goes to the heart of editorial independence, and the way some think they can ride roughshod over it. The Australian Open is a big event, Nadal nearly its biggest star. In both, there is an abiding public interest far outweighing the commercial. That should be terms and conditions enough for an interview. However much the insurance agency might think Nadal belongs to them, he doesn’t.
All sports ration out their stars to media now. At one level, that is only to be expected: demand is enormous. But of the sports I cover, only tennis – the richest sport of all – puts a price on its stars (and make no mistake, Nadal was not being volunteered to us, he was being sold to us – or the highest bidder). Remember, this interview was offered, not sought.
If the interview had proceeded, I don’t have to guess how it would have played out. I know. In 2014, author Chloe Hooper had a brief audience with Roger Federer under the aegis of a champagne-maker.
Recounting it in Good Weekend, Hooper told of how an agent intervened in the conversation. “You only have five minutes,” says the publicist, suddenly breaking any spell. “So if you can include the Moet questions?”
Beforehand, the publicist has emailed Hooper, stipulating a question about Moet. She’d replied evasively.
“So do you drink a lot of champagne?” I ask. He looks only slightly uneasy as he answers, “Selectively, in certain moments. I like to celebrate more today. When I was younger I was running from one thing to the next … but today I try to savour moments more. Not only on the tennis court, it’s also when I catch up with friends. There’s always something to celebrate and then I try to open a bottle of Moet et Chandon.”
Hooper, surprised at this guilelessness, tried to move the conversation on. She didn’t get far. “You have one minute: if we can maybe have one more reference to Moet et Chandon,” says the publicist. “Maybe you can talk about the 2004 vintage and why that’s so important and special to you?”
“In 2004, I became world No. 1,” he says. “It’s the one I try to open whenever it’s a really big occasion for me, so that’s my favourite.” Federer’s voice trails off. He’s self-conscious.
But yes, even Saint Roger plays this cynical game.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.